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Originally published June 16, 2010 at 10:31 AM | Page modified June 17, 2010 at 7:40 AM

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Four additional Lewis-McChord Stryker soldiers charged in Afghan deaths

The five soldiers accused of killing three Afghan civilians over a period of months earlier this year allegedly threw grenades at them and shot them with rifles, according to charging papers released Wednesday by Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Seattle Times staff reporters

Related developments

Americans killed: A roadside bombing killed two U.S. service members in the Baghi Shirkat area in northern Afghanistan on Wednesday, officials said, pushing the death toll among American troops so far this month to 30.

Karzai in Japan: Afghan President Hamid Karzai is seeking financial and political support from Japan, already one of his country's biggest donors, during a visit that began Wednesday.

Congressional hearing: The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Gen. David Petraeus, returned to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to endorse President Obama's order to pull out of Afghanistan starting next summer, while senior Pentagon officials urged patience as troops began operations to stabilize the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. "As goes Kandahar, so goes Afghanistan," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Seattle Times news services

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Five soldiers accused of murdering three Afghan civilians earlier this year allegedly threw grenades at them and shot them with rifles, according to charging papers released Wednesday by Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Two of the soldiers also are accused of beating a fellow soldier who might have been an informant, while a third is accused of trying to impede the investigation by asking a colleague to erase a computer hard drive which contained evidence of the crimes.

The slayings in January, February and May come as a blow to the credibility of the U.S. military as it seeks to win over local populations in advance of a major campaign in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

The five soldiers all come from the same unit at Lewis-McChord — the 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment of the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

All the killings took place at or near Forward Operating Base Ramrod in Kandahar Province, according to charging papers. No motives are offered for the killings.

Two soldiers are accused of being involved in all of the killings while three are each accused of being involved in one killing. No more soldiers are expected to face charges in the case, said Lt. Col. Tamara Parker, a spokeswoman at Lewis-McChord.

At some point in January, according to the charging papers, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs and Pfc. Andrew Holmes threw a grenade and fired at Afghan Gul Mudin, killing him.

On February 22, Morlock, Gibbs and Spc. Michael Wagnon fired upon and killed Marach Agha, charging papers say. And then on May 2, Morlock, Gibbs and Spc. Adam Winfield threw a grenade and fired upon Mullah Adahdad, killing him, according to the charges.

Three days after the final killing, Morlock and Gibbs are accused of hitting, kicking and spitting at a fellow soldier. That same month, Wagnon allegedly tried to have the hard drive erased.

Four of the soldiers have now been returned from Afghanistan and are being held in pretrial confinement at Lewis-McChord. The fifth soldier, Gibbs, was charged last week in Kuwait and is being transported back to the Washington base.

"Sometimes soldiers do not live up to the values that we would expect," Parker said. "These men are charged with very serious crimes. I'm not aware of another case like this."

The investigation comes as Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander, has focused on trying to reduce civilian casualties caused by U.S. and other NATO forces, which has been a major concern of the Afghan government.

Parker said she knows "there is a lot of concern" about how the case will play out in Afghanistan.

Agence France-Presse, citing two unnamed officials, said the assault allegations involve one soldier who blew the whistle on his comrades over possible drug use and then suffered a severe beating in retaliation. While recovering in hospital, that soldier recounted his comrades' alleged role in the deaths of the three Afghan civilians, according to the two officials.

Parker said that in the case of Morlock, the first of the men charged, the base already has called for an Article 32 hearing — the military equivalent of a grand jury. A hearing date has yet to be set.

A military magistrate has reviewed Morlock's pretrial confinement and concluded it's warranted given the seriousness of the allegations, Parker said. Because the military doesn't have a bail system, that means he likely will remain locked up until his case is concluded.

Premeditated murder, the crime that the soldiers are charged with, is the most serious of four murder charges that can be levied under the military code of justice, according to Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale University. It carries the death penalty.

In cases involving multiple soldiers, military prosecutors, like their civilian counterparts, may sometimes cut deals with some defendants to gain evidence against other defendants.

"The prosecutors' door is likely to open, and they may have to make some wrenching decisions about whom to make a deal with to gain evidence," Fidell said.

The five soldiers were part of a 3,800-strong brigade that headed over to southern Afghanistan last July and plunged into the thick of the fighting. The brigade has lost 36 soldiers, including seven from the 2nd Battalion. Gibbs and Wagnon were each on their third deployment, while Morlock, Winfield and Holmes were each on their first. Morlock, 22, is from Wasilla, Alaska; Gibbs 25, is from Billings, Mont.; Wagnon, 29, is from Las Vegas; Holmes, 19, is from Boise, Idaho, and Winfield, 21, is from Cape Coral, Fla.

Greg Gilbert, a spokesman for the Holmes family, said Holmes has sought legal counsel since May 26, but the Army has yet to grant his request. Gilbert described the teen soldier as "a very good young man."

"I don't hold any stock in these charges," Gilbert said.

Morlock's brother on Wednesday declined to comment. Morlock, a former high-school hockey player, has faced previous charges in the U. S. Two years ago, his wife sought a domestic-violence protective order against him. Last year, he was charged with assault and disorderly conduct and found guilty of the latter charge. When he was 15, Morlock was charged in Alaska with leaving the scene of an accident involving an injury or death and received a deferred prosecution.

Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

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